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Word Matters: Bringing the 'I' to Your Writing

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Mary VitcendaOne of my favorite writers on writing, William Zinsser, died last month at the age of 92. Zinsser was a big advocate of clarity, simplicity, and brevity. "There's not much to be said about the period except that most writers don't reach it soon enough," he wrote in his classic book on non-fiction writing, "On Writing Well." (That book has sold more than 1.5 million copies since its publication nearly 40 years ago.)

But Zinsser also advocated injecting the personal in non-fiction writing. Not in a self-indulgent or excessive way, but in a way that makes your writing authentic and memorable. He called it bringing the "I" to your writing.

"Wait minute," I can hear you saying. "I can't use 'I" in a report or journal article. It's just not done!" True enough. In "On Writing Well," Zinsser acknowledges that using "I" is not allowed in many settings for valid reasons.

However, he writes, it's still possible to convey a sense of "I-ness" in professional writing. "If you aren't allowed to use 'I,' at least think 'I' while you write," he says. He further suggests writing a first draft in the first person and then taking the "I's" out. "It will warm up your impersonal style," he notes.

I have a couple more suggestions for injecting the "I-ness" in your professional writing. First, write as if you were talking to your spouse or a close friend — someone you're not trying to impress but just explain things to. Writing in a conversational tone will let you achieve two goals:

1) Help people who don't know as much as you do understand your field, and
2) Bring yourself to your writing.

My second suggestion is to apply some of the same spirit you would bring to a blog post to a report or journal article. I've been editing the Family Matters blog for almost a year now, and I've read some pretty amazing posts in that time. Columns such as Close Encounters of a Different Kind, Eavesdropping on the Everyday, and Renewed Appreciation for Family. Those pieces are memorable, in part, because they reveal something of the lives of the people who wrote them.

Those blog posts also are memorable because they were written with passion and enthusiasm for their subjects. I’m not suggesting you turn a report or journal article into a memoir. What I am suggesting is that you bring the spirit of those blog posts to your professional writing. As Zinsser wrote, "I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me  some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field."
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